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North Korea prepared to restart talks, raising hope for eased tensions

Some say that while Pyongyang's preconditions are unrealistic, its statement provides a noteworthy change in recent tone.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un applauds as he visits an athletics contest held by North Korean universities, at a stadium in North Korea, Monday.

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After tensions on the Korean Peninsula reached their highest in two decades, the North released a statement signaling a possible willingness for dialogue and end to weeks of hostility.

"Dialogue and war cannot co-exist," North Korea’s National Defense Commission said in an official statement today. “If the US and the South Korean puppets … genuinely want dialogue and negotiation, they should take these steps.”

The list of demands laid out by the North are extensive and not particularly realistic – including an end to US-South Korea annual war games, the elimination of all United Nations sanctions against the North, and the removal of US nuclear resources from the region. Seoul has called the conditions “illogical.”

But observers say the move is a positive, if small, development after weeks of nuclear threats against the US, South Korea, and Guam, reports The Washington Post.

“The U.S. and China have both expressed their intention to talk to North Korea. As China is likely to push hard for resuming dialogue, North Korea may not be able to resist it for long. They are trying to exit the current tensions,” Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, told The Wall Street Journal.

“The tensions should gradually decrease from here, but we cannot lose ourselves” to complacency, added a South Korean defense ministry official who requested anonymity to convey government thinking. “We do still have to be prepared for any provocations,” the official told the Post.

Reuters notes that the North’s tactic here is a familiar one. Former leaders like Kim Jong-il would work to heighten threats of war and regional tension in an attempt to win concessions from the West. Many speculate the increased threats in recent weeks is in part due to North Korea's newest leader Kim Jong-un's desire to prove himself. The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month:

North Korea watchers have begun to say that Kim Jong-un is showing he is definitely in charge of North Korea, that his leadership is bold and forceful, and that he is using his bellicosity in challenging the mighty United States to make himself a legendary figure for North Koreans, every bit as powerful and heroic as his father and grandfather, whose colossal statues and giant photos are found in every nook and cranny of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“This is the first crisis between Kim Jong-un and the world,” says Alexandre Mansourov, a longtime Korea-watcher for the US government who studied in Pyongyang and is now with Johns Hopkins University. “This confrontation is not material, not about military capability. It is about his [Kim’s] reputation. He is carving out his personal stamp. He will no longer live in the shadow of dad and granddad. He is now the man. And he is succeeding.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was in the region earlier this week, and the topic of North Korea dominated much of his trip. "Let me just make it clear, I have no desire as secretary of State, and the president has no desire to do the same horse trade or go down the old road," Mr. Kerry said in Washington yesterday.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye echoed the sentiment, telling foreign diplomats: “We must break the vicious cycle of holding negotiations and providing assistance if [North Korea] makes threats and provocations, and again holding negotiations and providing assistance if there are threats and provocations.”

In December, North Korea launched a rocket that some believe was a test aimed at developing the needed technology to create a long-range rocket with a nuclear warhead – an act in clear defiance of UN regulations. Then, in February it conducted its third nuclear weapons test, inciting further UN sanctions. These March sanctions, in turn, resulted in the North’s increased warlike rhetoric and threats, and actions such as cutting off a military hotline connecting the North and South and barring South Korean workers from a joint factory park earlier this month.

Pyongyang has positioned at least one missile in the country’s east for an expected test fire as well, reports The Wall Street Journal.

But if it were go to through with another launch, the US is unlikely to do anything that would appear to "reward" the North for such actions. Before the North went ahead with a long-range missile test in December, the Obama administration offered to provide 240,000 tons of food to North Korea. After the test it promptly withdrew that, Bloomberg reports. “We’re not going to reward them, and come to the table, and get into some food deal, without some pretty ironclad concept on how we’re going forward on the denuclearization,” Kerry said. 

"It's a good sign, they are prepared to negotiate, but they are demanding an exorbitant and impermissibly high price … The game will continue," North Korea expert Leonid Petrov from the Australian National University told The Guardian. Mr. Petrov believes the rocket launch and successful nuclear test could change “the rules of the game,” but predicts, “the status quo will prevail.”

North Korea won't be recognised as a nuclear state; the US will continue its joint military drills; periodically, tensions will escalate, probably once or twice a year."

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